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In Rural Idaho, Co-op Delivers the Fiber

Co-op subscribers in Challis, Idaho are set to see faster speeds as Custer Telephone Cooperative, Inc. (CTCI) gained permission from city officials to install fiber-optic cable to local homes. With the member-owned telecommunications cooperative expanding its fiber optic network throughout Custer and Lemhi Counties, local residents will benefit from a future-proof network that promises higher speeds and low prices. 

How Did We Get Here?

The rural towns on the eastern side of Idaho’s Sawtooth Range are remote, sparsely populated, and mountainous - all factors which scare away investment from large Internet service providers (ISPs). Yet, they will witness construction of a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network, something that even their urban counterparts rarely see. CTCI, which has been delivering telecommunications services to the community since 1955, will provide 1,253 co-op members in Custer County and Lemhi County with high-quality Internet connectivity at competitive prices.

CTCI currently provides download speeds of 6-15 Megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of 1 Mbps on its aging coax-copper network. Their initial goal is to achieve 100 Mbps on a 100 percent fiber-optic network, with speeds ultimately reaching 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) (or 1,000 Mbps). The co-op’s pricing chart currently lists a 100 Mbps download/10 Mbps upload fiber connection at $279.95/month. 

Federal Funds Point in the Right Direction

CTCI receives federal funding through the Universal Service Fund (USF), an FCC program designed to improve Internet connectivity in the rural U.S. CTCI’s receives the funding for operating expenses and investments because of the cooperative's contribution to the public benefit as stated in a 2012 report to the Universal Service Administrative Corporation (USAC):

“In light of Custer's longstanding record of outstanding past service, and its plans to continue upgrading, improving, and maintaining its network for the benefit of its customers, there is no doubt that Custer's status as an ETC [Eligible Telecommunications Carrier] is consistent with the public interest, convenience, and necessity.”

As a member of Syringa Networks, a consortium of 12 Idaho networks, CTCI leases special access lines to community anchor institutions like hospitals, schools, and public land managers across Idaho. Together, USF funding and access charges amount to 45 percent of annual CTCI revenue. Subscriber Internet access accounts for 12 percent of total revenue. 

Why a Gig? The Video Response You've Been Waiting For!

With the increasing number of gigabit cities, a trend led by local governments, Google, and some cutting edge small ISPs, some are confused why a gigabit is important now when most applications do not need that much bandwidth to operate. We get this question frequently and decided to make a short video explainer for why a making a gigabit available to everyone is a smart goal. 

Please share widely!

 

Whip City Fiber Snaps To It: Yet Another Expansion In Westfield, MA

In the spring, Westfield, Massachusetts began to expand it’s Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network, Whip City Fiber with a build-out to three additional neighborhoods. Earlier this month, Westfield Gas + Electric announced that they will soon expand even further to three more areas.

According to Dan Howard, General Manager of the utility, the demand for the symmetrical Internet access is strong:

"Every day we hear from residents of Westfield who are anxious for high-speed Internet to be available in their neighborhood," he said. "It's a great motivator for our entire team to hear how much customers are looking forward to this new service."

Gigabit residential access is $69.95 per month; businesses pay $84.95 for the same product but also get Wi-Fi for their establishments. Installation is free. If people in the new target areas sign up before August 31st, they will get a free month of service.

Like a growing number of communities, Westfield started with a pilot project in a limited area to test the level of interest for a FTTH network in their community. They are finding a high level of interest and gaining both confidence and the knowledge to continue the incremental expansion across the community. Other towns with the same approach include Owensboro, Kentucky; Madison, Wisconsin; and Holland, Michigan.

Westfield officials are asking interested residents and businesses to check out the pilot expansion page to determine if they are in the expansion area and to sign up for service. The page also explains how your Westfield neighborhood can become a fiberhood to get on the list for expansion.

For more about Whip City Fiber, listen to Chris interview Aaron Bean, Operations Manager, and Sean Fitzgerald, Customer Service Manager, from Westfield Gas + Electric. They spoke in June during episode #205 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Westminster Muni Network Expanding

Marking another big step forward, the mayor and Common Council of Westminster, Maryland (pop. 18,000) have hired a telecommunications, utility and government contracting firm to continue building the first two phases of the Westminster Fiber Network (WFN).

City Hires SMC

Westminster expects to complete this construction in 2017, providing Gigabit per second (Gbps) connectivity to an additional 2,700 homes and businesses in the western part of the community, according to a city news release. Cost of this phase is undetermined $21 million, Westminster marketing consultant Jason Stambaugh told us; the city will issue general obligation bonds to fund the entire cost of the network the expansion.

One year after Westminster celebrated lighting its municipal fiber network, the city hired SMC, Inc. to construct the expansion. Westminster is partnering with Toronto-based Ting to provide retail services via the Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network. 

“This expansion of the WFN is an important milestone and demonstrates the City’s continued commitment to revolutionize Internet access, bring local jobs, and drive innovation that will enable the community to thrive.”

Westminster began building its municipal fiber network in October, 2014, and entered into a public-private partnership with Ting in February, 2015. The city owns the infrastructure and Ting leases fiber to bring Internet service to businesses and residents. Westminster began its municipal fiber network, spending about $1.8 million to get the project started in a residential retirement community and an industrial park. 

Bonds Back Fiber Network  

Because of high demand, the City Council voted to expand the municipal fiber project, approving a $21 million general obligation bond agreement with SunTrust Bank.  

As MuniNetworks.org reported last December:

“According to Common Council President Robert Wack, the bank’s willingness to buy the bonds came in part as a result of the proven high demand for fast, reliable, affordable, symmetrical fiber service in Westminster.”  

Although the city doesn’t have hard numbers on the impact of the pilot program, there have been plenty of positive anecdotal reports, Stambaugh told us. He noted: 

“One of our local businesses, Open Professional Group, has said that the Internet service he's able to purchase over the network through Ting is allowing his firm to save money on their monthly Internet bills and has drastically increased productivity. He's also noted that he's extremely proud of his Internet speeds. When clients come in for a visit, he'll often do a speed test to show off his new Gigabit connection.”

Currently, Westminster is in the midst of completing engineering and going through a competitive bidding process on the project, Stambaugh told us.  

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More on Westminster Fiber 

We've published numerous stories on Westminster’s municipal fiber network. Just last month, we highlighted a Carroll County Times report about Westminster officials and the city’s fiber network partner, Ting, holding a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the first Ting Makerspace, a service featuring 3-D scanning technology. 

You can also learn more about the WFN by listening to episode #100 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Our Chris Mitchell talked with Dr. Robert Wack, the man who spearheaded the plan in Westminster. Learn more details about the partnership between Westminster and Ting by downloading our report, The Secrets Behind Partnerships to Improve Internet Access.

UPDATE: While the exact cost of this phase is yet to be determined, City Council documents reflect that SMC was hired to complete phase 1 and begin phase 2. The firm will be paid approximately $3.8 million. Strambaugh stressed that this expansion to 2,700 properties is a substantial percentage of the community’s 7,000 premises.

Leverett Releases RFP For ISP: Responses Due August 15th

Leverett, Massachusetts, has operated its Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network since August 2015, working with Crocker Communications to bring Gigabit per second (Gbps) connectivity to residents and businesses in the Massachusetts town. The contract with Crocker is not indefinite, however, and the city has issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for other Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to offer services on the network. Responses are due August 15, 2016.

According to the RFP, the ISP selected will have an exclusive agreement to provide services to the community as leverettnet.net. The community seeks a three-year contract and will begin on or before July 1, 2017. 

Leverett’s contract with Crocker Communications was also a three-year term, commencing in 2014. Releasing an RFP now will give community leaders eleven months to review submissions from potential providers and negotiate terms. With their own infrastructure, Leverett has the ability to take a discerning approach and explore other options from the RFP release.

RFP SCHEDULE: 

Written Questions Due: July 18, 2016 at 10 a.m. 

Answers to Questions Posted: July 25, 2016

Submission of Proposals Due: August 15, 2016 at 10 a.m.

Finalist Named: August 26th, 2016

Contract Award: September 2nd, 2016

EPB, Power of Munis In "The Nation"

This week in The Nation, Peter Moskowitz highlighted some of the nation's fastest municipal networks, bringing these Gig cities to a new level of national awareness. From Sandy, Oregon, to Wilson, North Carolina, and Chattanooga, Moskowitz touted these networks as a main reason the cities have been able to attract entrepreneurs and businesses.

The focus of the article was on Chattanooga's EPB Fiber network, how it propelled the city into the 21st century, and continues to spark innovation. Chattanooga's EPB now boasts a subscribership of 82,000 -- testimony to fast, affordable, reliable connectivity and good customer service.

“Really, these last two years you’ve seen it pick up steam,” said Christopher Mitchell, the director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR). “It’s just going to keep on spreading.”

Six years ago, Chattanooga was the only city offering publicly owned 1-gigabit Internet. Today, over 50 communities do, according to ILSR, and there are over 450 communities in the United States offering some form of publically owned Internet. Many municipal networks are in small towns and rural areas where private high-speed Internet is hard to come by. But several dozen are in cities like Chattanooga, where there are other, private options for internet that tend to be much more expensive and slower than what governments have proven they can provide.

While the Internet network is one of many things Chattanooga is doing right, the option to obtain Gigabit per second (Gbps) service for only $70 per month is a big bonus. Other communities see Chattanooga's success and are starting to replicate their own affordable Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) Gig plans.

Read full article

Tennessee Potential Partnership Between Morristown Muni and AEC Co-op - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 203

In Tennessee, this month marks 10 years of Morristown Utility Systems delivering fiber-optic triple-play service to the community, including great Internet access. But those living just outside the city and in nearby cities have poor access at best. MUS General Manager and CEO Jody Wigington returns to our show this week and we also welcome Appalachian Electric Cooperative (AEC) General Manager Greg Williams to discuss a potential partnership to expand Morristown services to those that want them.

As we have frequently noted, Tennessee law prohibits municipal fiber networks from expanding beyond their electric territories. The FCC decision repealing that favor to the big cable and telephone company lobbyists is currently being appealed. But Tennessee also prohibits electrical co-ops from providing telephone or cable TV service, which makes the business model very difficult in rural areas.

Nonetheless, MUS and AEC have studied how they can team up to use the assets of both to deliver needed services to those outside Morristown. We discuss their plan, survey results, the benefits of working together, and much more.

Read the transcript from this show here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 24 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Forget the Whale for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "I Know Where You've Been."

Palo Alto, CA, and Pikeville, KY, Release RFIs

Two new Requests for Information (RFI) were recently released in Palo Alto, California, and Pikeville, Kentucky. 

Pikeville, Kentucky

Pikeville is open to both public ownership and Gigabit service via privately owned infrastructure. This community of approximately 7,000 residents wants Fiber-to-the-Premises (FTTP) for businesses, community anchor institutions, municipal facilities, and residents. The regional Appalachian Mountain community, with many jobs lost due to the shrinking coal industry, is turning to connectivity as a way to spur economic development.

Pikeville’s RFI describes how service from existing providers is expensive and "sporadic." This RFI calls for a partner that will help the community develop an open access, affordable, financially sustainable network. In drafting the RFI, Pikeville’s officials made sure to note that low-income residents will not be left behind; bringing this asset to disadvantaged residents is a priority.

The city is the county seat of Pike County and home to a number of colleges as well as several large healthcare facilities. City, county, and federal government facilities are also located in Pikeville and need better connectivity. In 2015, the city obtained a $5 million grant for technology-based training and degree programs for residents in the area. A $1 million grant supplied funding for a Broadband Technology Center in Pikeville. Now the city needs fast, affordable, reliable Internet network infrastructure to complement the Center and to move the local workforce toward more information based industries.

Important Dates:

  • Letter of Intent Due: May 23, 2016
  • Questions Due: May 25, 2016
  • Final RFI Submissions Due: June 3, 2016

The city’s website has more information and details.

Palo Alto, California

Palo Alto is a Silicon Valley city of 67,000 residents; daytime workers coming into the community swell the population to approximately 125,000. Incumbents include Comcast and AT&T who have intimated they might be interested in bringing fiber to the city, but have yet to act. Community leaders are exploring all options with this RFI.

The community has a network of dark fiber serving commercial customers and the public school system. In fact, Palo Alto has experience with providing utility services, as it currently brings municipal electric, gas, water, and wastewater services to the community.

The RFI calls for partners, private or non-profit, to develop a Gigabit per second (Gbps), open access network in the community for every household, business, and institution. Palo Alto is willing to consider either publicly owned or privately owned infrastructure.

As the RFI notes, Google Fiber is still considering Palo Alto as another location for its fiber network. City officials want respondents to consider the implications, should Google Fiber decide to build and operate within the community and to address the possibility in their RFIs.

Important Dates:

  • Letter of Intent Due: May 27, 2016
  • Questions Due: June 3, 2016
  • Final RFI Submissions Due: June 24, 2016

Get more details on the city website.

Ozarks Electric To Bring Gig to Arkansas and Oklahoma

Ozarks Electric Cooperative has a plan to bring fast, affordable, reliable connectivity to northwest Arkansas and northeast Oklahoma.

Fast, Affordable, Reliable Connectivity At Last

OzarksGo, a wholly owned subsidiary of the electric co-op, will provide Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) Internet service with symmetrical speeds of up to a Gigabit (1,000 Megabits) per second. The fiber network will cost $150 million to build over the next six years.

ArkansasOnline and local news station KSFM reported on the future network. The residential FTTH service will have no data caps and OzarksGo will offer additional services, such as telephone and video. At the end of the project, all co-op members will have access to the network's services.

According to the FCC 2016 Broadband report, 25 percent of all Arkansas residents don't have access to broadband (defined as 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload). In Oklahoma, the FCC puts the numbers higher at 27 percent. Rural areas are even higher with 48 percent lacking in Arkansas and 66 percent missing out in Oklahoma. Considering the data collection process depends on self-reporting by ISPs, those numbers are considered low. The number of households that do not have access to federally defined broadband, especially in rural areas, is higher.

Soon though, these Arkansas and Oklahoma residents will have access to fast, affordable Internet access. General manager for OzarksGo Randy Klindt, who previously worked on Co-Mo Electric Cooperative's FTTH network, explained in the video below that the price for a Gigabit will be less than $100, which is an entirely opt-in service.

Ozarks Electric Cooperative serves about 71,000 customers, including businesses. Since the service area is so large, OzarksGo will build the network incrementally over the next six years. Each phase will cost between $25 and $35 million - for a total of around $150 million. This fall, they will begin construction on the first phase.

Fiber for the Electric Side

The network will also monitor the electric system by connecting substations and offices, improving efficiency. The co-op recently received approval for a rate-increase for rising costs in the electric system; the fiber network will help manage those electric costs.

Monitoring the electric system with a fiber network can shorten or eliminate outages, and this reduces electricity rates over time. For instance, the fiber network in Chattanooga, Tennessee, brought the city's electric rates 5 percent lower than they would have been without the fiber smart grid. Alyssa Roberts, a spokesperson for the co-op, told ArkansasOnline that the fiber system is expected to pay for itself through cost-savings on operations and maintenance.

Electric and Telephone Cooperatives Team Up

Rural electric cooperatives have decades of experience in providing essential services. Now several are looking to improve Internet access in unserved and underserved regions. In central Missouri, Barry Electric Cooperative and Co-Mo Cooperative have already started by providing Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) Internet service. Another Missouri electric co-op, Callaway Electric Cooperative, is also getting into the business.

The co-op’s subsidiary, Callaway Electric Service, aims to offer FTTH in Callaway County and has teamed up with the local telephone co-op’s subsidiary, Kingdom Technology Solutions. Together, they will operate the partnership as Callabyte Technology.

Increasing Speeds and Access

Callabyte Technology will offer symmetrical Internet access speeds (i.e. the same upload and download speed). They will also offer telephone and video service as a triple-play package. Their “basic” speed is 100 Megabits per second (Mbps), four times faster than the FCC’s current download speed for the definition of broadband (25 Mbps download and 3 Mpbs upload). Prices are competitive:

  • $65 for 100 Mbps
  • $75 for 500 Mbps
  • $95 for a Gigabit (1000 Megabits) per second

In the fall of 2015, they began a pilot project in a small section of Callaway Electric Cooperative’s service area, which took place in the Stonehaven Subdivision near Fulton, Missouri. Telecompetitor reported that the project had a 50 percent take rate

Sharing Expertise and Profit

Each partner brings expertise in specific areas of the project. Callaway Electric Service is building the mainline infrastructure, while Kingdom Technology Solutions will manage customer connections, such as drops to the home and customer equipment.  Kingdom Telephone Company, their telephone co-op, has provided FTTH since late 2014 so they have plenty of experience with fiber.

The Kingdom Telephone Company began providing telephone service to Callaway and Montgomery Counties in 1954. Callaway Electric Cooperative began serving Callaway County in 1936 and now also serves portions of Montgomery County. The two have agreed to share any profit from Callabyte Technology based on each entity's investment in the venture. 

Collaboration between electric and telephone co-ops makes sense as a way to share expertise, resources, and risk. Rural co-ops do not have to enter into the Internet connectivity business alone as each typically has specialized knowledge, equipment, and additional assets. By joining forces each cooperative can expand Internet access to their members.